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Opposition To Tokyo Games Grows Heated Amid COVID Concerns

A crowd demonstrated against the Tokyo Olympics earlier this month in Tokyo, Japan. With less than 3 months remaining until the Olympics, concern continues to linger in Japan over the feasibility of hosting such a huge event during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Yuichi Yamazaki
Getty Images
A crowd demonstrated against the Tokyo Olympics earlier this month in Tokyo, Japan. With less than 3 months remaining until the Olympics, concern continues to linger in Japan over the feasibility of hosting such a huge event during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan's government moved Friday to put more of the country under a coronavirus state of emergency, as opposition to the Tokyo Olympics becomes more organized and vehement with only 70 days left to go until the opening ceremony.

Nine of Japan's 47 prefectures are now under a state of emergency until the end of the month after Hokkaido, Okayama and Hiroshima joined that list on Friday. The two largest cities, Tokyo and Osaka, are among the areas under a state of emergency. Case numbers in a fourth wave of infections continue to rise.

The government remains adamant that the games will proceed as planned and pledged to take proper anti-virus measures to make sure the Olympics are safe.

The problem is that local governments and medical institutions are refusing central government efforts to secure scarce medical resources for the Olympics. They refuse to prioritize Olympic athletes and staff over their own population.

"We are not considering securing or allocating hospital beds for people related to the Olympics to use, if that means that citizens of our prefecture will not be able to use them," Toshihito Kumagai, the governor of Chiba prefecture, told reporters Thursday.

Chiba, which borders Tokyo, is hosting surfing, wrestling, taekwondo and other Olympic events. Ibaraki and Kanagawa prefectures, also near Tokyo and holding events, have made similar decisions due to scarce medical resources.

Some 40 out of more than 500 towns have dropped out of a program to host Olympic athletes for training camps and cultural exchanges, the Nikkei newspaper reports. Chiba announced this week that the USA Track and Field team canceled its training camp in the prefecture for about 120 athletes.

On Thursday, a labor union representing 130 doctors presented a written request for the games to be canceled to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. "We should not turn Tokyo into a coronavirus hotspot. The Tokyo Olympics should not be held now," the group's head, Dr. Naoto Ueyama, told reporters Thursday.

Another group of critics delivered a petition to Olympic organizers on Friday, having garnered some 350,000 online signatures in nine days calling for the games to be canceled.

And late last month, health care workers took to Twitter to protest a government request to the Japanese Nursing Association for 500 nurses to help out at the Olympics. "We are not disposable pawns," one nurse fumed in a tweet.

Meanwhile, the tone of criticism of the government, and its insistence on holding the games, is becoming more strident.

"No vaccine. No medication. Are we supposed to fight with bamboo spears?" asked a full-page ad in three national newspapers, taken out by the outspoken Takarajimasha publishing company. "We'll be killed by politics if things remain unchanged," it added, showing an image of the coronavirus, alongside World War II-era pictures of children training with wooden weapons to fight U.S. troops.

To the Japanese, the images are a familiar evocation of a callous government sacrificing innocent lives for a lost cause.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga defended himself in parliament Monday, insistingthat he had never "put the Olympics first" and saying "my priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population."

Opposition lawmakers say the opposite is true.

"Unfortunately, we have to say it is impossible to protect the lives, health and livelihoods of the Japanese people while holding the Olympics and Paralympics," Yukio Edano, head of the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told lawmakers Monday.

The games organizers continue to deny any hint of uncertainty about the games fate, which is very much in character for them, says Jules Boykoff, a former professional soccer player and historian of the Olympics at Pacific University Oregon.

"Historically, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been impervious to public opinion," he says. "It's their most important thing, and they're not about to lose it to public opinion."

He points out that 90% of Olympic revenues come from broadcasting rights and corporate sponsorships. So even if the games are reduced to a TV-only spectacle, the IOC still gets its money.

That said, Boykoff, who has studied the anti-Olympic movement in several countries including Japan, notes that opposition to the games is becoming so strong that it's hard to ignore.

"Such full-throttle dissent against hosting the games," he says, "is unparalleled in the recent history of the Olympics."

Pressing ahead with the games, Boykoff argues, could result in a "relatively joyless affair that doesn't have that cultural exchange and interaction that make the Olympics special for a lot of people."

By contrast, he adds, canceling the games could remind people that some things, including public health, are more important than an optional sporting spectacle.

"These things matter more than sports," he says. "They matter more than the money that will be generated by the Olympics."

Chie Kobayashi contributed to this report from Tokyo.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.